The Secular State and Society (2006)

The Engelsberg Seminar 2006

June 15th to 17th 2006 at Avesta Manor, Sweden

Only a few decades ago, the future of religion in the West seemed predictable and there was good reason to suppose that the rest of the world would follow suit, with society growing increasingly secularised. The question of the future of the secular state could be deleted from the agenda, for the simple reason that there would be ever fewer believers to challenge it. Evidence to the contrary – in America for example – was simply dismissed. The theory seemed to have the backing of historical logic. Secularisation and the secular state marked the culmination of a long process in the West whereby Christianity had steadily lost ground. The ideas of the Enlightenment were surely in ascendance. Modernity indeed implied secularism. Science and social progress appeared victorious in the contest for souls and society. But western secularism was never without its complications: extreme utopian political creeds, such as communism and fascism, were arguably quasi-religions in their own right. At the start of the 21st century, however, it seems as if we have entered a post-secular era. Religion has proved itself important in ways that have widely different meanings. The experience may be primarily an individual, inward concern, or it may represent the core of certain movements which respect or profess to respect the secular state but claim the right to determine its members’lifestyles. But movements have also appeared which aspire to leave their imprint on society as a whole and thus to abolish the secular state. Are these fundamentalist movements akin to the religions whose divisions had such a destructive impact on Europe? How is the secular state to act in relation to these manifestations of religion? Should it endeavour to remain neutral, as in the USA or support religion but show equal favour to all convictions, as in India? Does a weak state religion act as a safeguard against rivalry between religious groups as arguably it does in the UK, or should a strict distinction between church and state prevail as in France or Turkey? What are the prospects for constructing secular constitutions in the Middle East, after the coalition forces dismantled a singular secularist, Saddam Hussein? Does it matter if those prospects are slight? And how should Europe respond to and fight the movements which challenge the secular state and perhaps wish to gain control of it? Under what conditions will those movements challenge such a state and in what ways? And above all, can the secular state endure in the long term without a secularisation of society? That is to say, if a majority of the population is religious, will they accept a secular state? In this conference these issues are discussed in a threefold manner; first the historical forces behind the emergence of the secular state and society are outlined and then the threats to the secular society considering Europe and Islam are discussed taking examples from different European countries and finally the future of multicultural society is addressed.


Historical Perspectives

Roger Scruton
Writer and Philosopher
Lecture: The Legacy of Secular Government in Europe

Jonathan Israel
Professor, Historian, Princeton University
Lecture: Spinoza, the Radical Enlightenment and its Relevance to the Problems of Today

Sunil Khilnani
Professor, Johns Hopkins University
Lecture: Is Secularism a Western Idea?

Charles Tripp
Doctor, Historian, SOAS, University of London
Lecture: Islam and the Ambiguities of Politics

Paul Berman
Writer and journalist
Lecture: Does it Make Sense to Speak of Totalitarianism Today?


Threats to the Secular State and Society – The Case of Europe and Islam

Olivier Roy
Writer, EHESS, Professor, University of Paris
Lecture: France and Islam

Theodore Dalrymple
Writer and journalist
Lecture: Muslims in Britain – The Effects of Secularisation

Lars Hedegaard
Writer and Journalist
Lecture: The Growth of Islam in Denmark and the Future of Secularism

Carl Rudbeck
Writer and Journalist
Lecture: Sweden and Islam

Tariq Ramadan
Writer, Professor, St. Antony’s College, Oxford
Lecture: The Muslim Mission in Europe

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Writer and Politician
Lecture: The Price of Freedom – Muslim Women in Holland

Bassam Tibi
Writer, Professor, University of Göttingen
Lecture: What Islam for a Post-Secular Europe? – The Case of Germany

Dogu Ergil
Professor, Ankara University
Lecture: Turkey, Europe and Islam

Etyen Mahcupyan
Writer, Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation
Lecture: Challenges of Change and Authoritarian Secularism

Pierre Lellouche
Writer and Politician
Lecture: The Islamic Threat

Rolf Ekéus
OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Ambassador
Lecture: Contradictions in Secularism and Islam – Iraq


The Future of Multiculturalism

Paul Scheffer
Lecture: The Multicultural Drama – European Experiences

Ibn Warraq
Lecture: Identity, Culture, Reason and the West

Kenan Malik
Lecture: The Failure of Multiculturalism

Nathan Shachar
Lecture: Multiculturalism – Some Views on a Conceptual Muddle

Hugh Roberts
Lecture: Against Identity Politics